Deconstructing Electric Vehicles on the eve of Glasgow COP26

A lead human-interest story in the weekend Wheels section of a major Canadian newspaper is about a 2-car family’s transitioning from a hybrid to an EV as they “try to be more sustainable”. They upgrade their daily car every few years to seek “improvements in fuel efficiency, reliability and technology”. Electric vehicles (EVs) are feted by the automobile and ecojustice sectors as part of the “just transition” to a future “carbon-neutral”, happy, dignified quality of life. Another news item from the Wheels section was about the costs of home EV battery chargers costing about $2000; the chargers are plugged into electric outlets (electricity commonly supplied from fossil fuels or nuclear reactors), while the costs will be “quickly re-couped in government rebates” as public transportation subsidies continue their decline. So much for the climate emergency and for human justice, for morality and taking responsibility for mounting climate-caused human deaths and mass migration. Nothing in the newspaper about the indignation of ordinary, common people worldwide, especially among the young.

Since the 1988 Congressional definitive testimony of James Hansen and other climate scientists, there is no discourse about “Stop”: elimination of fossil fuel emissions quickly morphed into adaptation and mitigation which is now replaced by “transition”. EVs is a representative example of focusing on one small part, conveniently deleting the whole. The whole EV picture must include externalities, life cycle analysis, consideration of non-essential production, impacts of its production on basic human needs, the urgent timeline due to non-linear climate processes, regional climate and sociopolitical processes and who EVs actually serve, EV’s effects on carbon sinks, pertinent facts about human and climate history, loss and damage obligations and debt to people totally impacted and totally innocent regarding the climate emergency, alternatives, elucidating who is served in a “just transition”.

The carbon footprint of the automobile whole picture includes asphalt roads, the amount of cement used in parking garages and driveways, building codes that allow heated driveways. Past research from the Earth Policy Institute reported that there were 214 million cars and 3 million km of roads, consuming 1 million hectares of land, enough cropland to feed 9 million people in the U.S. Highway systems lead to deforestation and soil depletion, eroding these crucial carbon sinks. Water campaigner Maude Barlow [1] reported that water was often given by governments to private industries in the automobile, computer, and bottled water sectors, and that it took 400,000 liters to construct one car. Water shortages for people’s basic needs is glaringly one consequence of climate change-caused drought. From the Earth Policy Institute in 2008, Lester Brown wrote that food production suffers because farmers earn much more by selling water to the steel industry than by using water on their land to grow wheat. These are all climate-linked externalities related to all cars.

The carbon footprint of EVs includes the emissions of mining for metals in batteries and emissions for constructing the car’s body. “The International Energy Agency predicts that in the coming decades, hundreds of millions of [electric] vehicles will hit the roads, carrying massive batteries inside them. And each of those batteries will contain tens of kilograms of materials that have yet to be mined. Electrifying vehicles adds yet more weight. Combustible, energy-dense petroleum is replaced by bulky batteries. And the rest of the vehicle must get heavier to provide the necessary structural support.” Steel and cement are the two most fossil-fuel dependent products to manufacture. Steel is the primary metal used to make most cars. The EPA suggests that almost 65 percent of the materials used to build the average car are a steel product. Most parts of the car that have to do with steering and suspension are made from steel. Parts of the body, wheels, chassis and frame are also made from steel. Stainless steel is used for bolts, brackets and exhaust parts primarily because of its resistance to rust. Also, the auto industry relies on oil and petroleum products for the synthesis of plastics and other synthetic materials.

Robin McKie’s September 2021 article on mining metals for renewable energy plants and electric vehicles is key to understanding the enormity, depravity, of “green” deception. Mining corporations are seeking a quick go-ahead from the UN International Seabed Authority to dredge the deepest layer of ocean floor in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, more than 4m sq. miles of seabed to mine lithium, copper, manganese, nickel, cobalt. This would require sucking up nodules and pumping them 5 km to the ocean surface for the next 25 to 30 years. The technology involves pipelines attached to robot bulldozers that would “be able to gather about 400 tonnes of nodules in an hour and pump them aloft. Over two weeks’ operation, more than 100,000 tonnes could be removed …. About 10,000 sq km of the seabed could be strip-mined.” How much energy would all of this require to manufacture batteries for hundreds of millions of EVs.

There are well-known horrific human impacts of mining lithium, cobalt, nickel in Bolivia, Ecuador, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, and “in Xinjiang [where] members of the persecuted Uyghur ethnic minority make up most of the labor force in the hazardous quartz mining and polysilicon manufacturing industries. And most of the Uyghurs are employed through the government’s so-called “surplus labor” and ‘labor transfer’ programs.”

Humans are not hard-wired to consume; advertising is a huge, fossil-fuel intensive business. The vast expansion of car sales after WWII came when car dealers saw a big market opportunity in selling to women who were taking jobs outside the home the promotion of urban sprawl requiring cars, the two-car suburban family [2]], the simultaneous depiction of modern woman “freed” from slavish childcare and housework with the marketing of labor-saving and lucrative child, fast food (agro-industry), and cleaning products. [3]

Regarding this emergency there is a fundamental elision of facts, categories, dynamic complexity: 1) Climate change is a non-linear process and the primary factor is amplifying feedbacks [4]; the “carbon budget” and all the projected targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions based on linear process are wrong. Here is a simplified explanation of what non-linear means: adding “a” amount of greenhouse gases from human activity is amplified by feedbacks. For example, “a” amount has caused the temperature to increase which then causes forest fires – the burning trees expel its stored carbon and adds more emissions (a+b); the soot blackens ice which adds more emissions (a+b+c); the burnt forest is no longer a carbon sink, thus adding more emissions (a+b+c+d); some feedbacks due to increasing temperature, such as water vapor due to evaporation, or methane from melting permafrost, trap far more heat than CO2 (a+b+c+d+E). The trigger for this process is the CO2 used in manufacturing and the immense amount of CO2 emitted by the agro-industrial complex. However, with feedbacks, the heat-trapping process becomes self-generating and even zero human emissions will not stop this process until some undetermined time. The carbon budget, the postponement of setting caps, assumes that there is no amplification as if “a” remains “a”. The fact of amplification means that the most substantial reductions should have occurred immediately.

2) Paleoclimate evidence shows that 350 parts per million of CO2 is the level at which ice disappears from the planet. [4] The World Meteorological Organization reported 410ppm in 2019 and a rapidly increasing rate of increase;

3) Not only are species becoming extinct but crucial ecosystems are unrecoverable because of current damage, such as parts of the boreal and Amazon forests. Permanently altered are ocean and atmospheric circulation, sea ice and glaciers;

4) humans cannot survive when a combination of temperature and humidity (“wet bulb temperature”) is approximately 35C;

5) The cynical and/or ignorant modus operandi of business-as-usual until and unless energy is replaced by non-fossil fuel based energy; ignored is the Jevons paradox that increases in efficiency do not reduce but add to energy use

6) Utter abnegation of regulatory responsibility: since the 2015 and 2018 IPCC warnings about the dire impacts of temperature rises above 1.5C, there has not been one mandatory and immediate cap on emissions After 1988 warning to Congress, legislators actually began the process of dismantling environmental regulations, [5]. Since the IPCC emergency warnings of 2015 and 2018, the IEA estimates that state support of the fossil fuel sector increased by 28% between 2017 and 2019 through corporate income tax allowances, through finance and profit by banks, insurance companies, and pension funds.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship SN15 released 358 tonnes of CO2 in a short 6 minute high-altitude test flight on 5 May. The carbon footprint of his 6-hour space flight worked out to around 4.5 tons/passenger; his annual footprint is estimated to be 7,493 metric tons, mostly from flying. By comparison, the annual per capita footprint (in metric tons) in the major lithium-producing countries are Bolivia 1.58, the Democratic Republic of the Congo .05, Australia 16.75. The poorest 50% of humanity is losing $4.4b per day, while Musk became $3.8b richer in one day.

The pressing question is how to very rapidly reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in the political abyss. There are innumerable little and big measures that in reality can be easily and quickly implemented without requiring any new technology, financing, or laws. The 1970s oil embargo led to reducing the speed limit and carpooling. In the 1990s Bogota initiated car-free days and Paris halved car traffic by alternating license plates. In WWII there was a 3-year moratorium on manufacturing cars and petroleum-based products and necessities were rationed. In Cuba the fossil-fuel dependent manufacturing and agriculture sectors were transformed by agroecological traditional practices of zero-tillage multi-crop agriculture. During Covid, there was a moratorium on non-essential aviation and shipping. “Stop” can be implemented as a public health necessity for Kyoto-exempt, high-emitting international shipping, aviation, the military and for other non-essential high-emitting practices that are deadly to people and their environment.

Single technological fixes like electric vehicles and batteries delay effective action. Preserving auto jobs by switching to EVs helps a small fraction of workers but is myopic about climate impact. There are essential jobs in providing neighborhood access to basic goods and services (such as community responses to disasters), and essential jobs in switching from industrial to agroecological farming. “The farm labour required per hectare would probably increase from eleven hours to between thirty and forty hours per hectare using draft animal power… a decrease in fuel-powered machinery is necessary to decrease fossil fuel use ….” [6]. “Just” solutions are urgent. Open borders and entitlement to food, water, shelter, and healthcare cannot be postponed, while high-priced technological fixes deflect awareness of the human emergency.

[1] Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Blue Gold: the fight to stop the corporate theft of the world’s water, The New Press, New York, 2002. p. 8

[2] Ian Angus, Too Many People: population, immigration, and the Environmental Crisis, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2011. P. 38-9.

[3] Selma Fraiberg, Every Child’s Birthright: in defense of mothering, Bantam Books, Toronto, 1977.

[4] James Hansen, Storms of my Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, Bloomsbury, New York 2009.

[5] James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: capitalism, the environment, and crossing from crisis to sustainability, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008. P xx-xxi. The graphs include water use, transport, fertilizer consumption, ocean ecosystems, global biodiversity, ozone depletion, CO2 concentration, loss of tropical rain forest and woodland damming of rivers, floods.

[6] David Pimentel, “Reducing Energy Inputs in the Agricultural Production System” in Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar, Agriculture and Food in Crisis: conflict, resistance, and renewal, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2010. P. 251-2.

Judith Deutsch is a member of the Socialist Project, Independent Jewish Voices, and  former president of Science for Peace. She is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She can be reached at:   judithdeutsch0@gmail.com.